The latest report of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has painted a bleak picture of religious freedom in India. While the report cites instances of violence and intimidation against religious minorities, recent developments in Gurugram and Delhi have come as a disturbing reminder about the climate of intolerance and hate perpetuated by some right-wing parties.
Last week while the Friday prayers were offered without hassles elsewhere, the mosques in Gurugram were overcrowded as the namaz was held in 47 designated places rather than 100-odd spots as before. The Haryana government had offered police protection after three consecutive Fridays of disruption by radical Hindu groups. Under the banner of Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti, 22 right-wing groups including Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch, have been disrupting Friday prayers and seeking ban on namaz in public places in Gurugram. They have been crying foul over “Muslim conspiracy” of encroaching on land near mosques. They also want expulsion of Bangladeshi immigrants and Rohingya refugees.
The conflict over offering namaz in Gurugram may have been triggered off by the use of public spaces with the alleged intention of encroaching on land near mosques, but as NDTV reported the list of demands put forth by the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti “goes well beyond civic issues, and targets the economic and social activities of Muslims in Gurugram”. A nine-point letter sent by the Samiti to the administration refers to the core ideological issues that have been part of the Hindutva agenda- the high rate of growth of the Muslim population and the threat of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas.
NDTV interviewed some of the leaders of the Samiti including its convener, Mahavir Prasad, who sees congregational prayers of Muslims as "shakti pradarshan" or a display of strength that "needs to be monitored". Dharmendra Yadav, head of the Gou Raksha Dal Haryana, boasted of how he has managed to get more than 400 cases filed against Muslims for “cow smuggling”. He even brags about how he had forced two Muslim men to eat cow dung. “The BBC, Al-Jazeera have made documentaries on my work and I'm on TV debates often,” he told the news channel.
Contrary to such aggressive assertion of the Hindutva groups, the Muslims seem overwhelmed by fear. As one of the clerics, Maulana Rizwan Saqlaiin told NDTV, "The atmosphere in Gurugram reeks of fear. There are very few mosques while the numbers of Muslims, especially poor labourers, run into thousands. It's become difficult for us to offer Friday namaz."
FROM TOMB TO TEMPLE
Meanwhile, a 15th-century tomb dating back to the Tughlaq dynasty in Delhi has been turned into Shiv Bhola temple. The monument was painted white and saffron, and idols placed inside it two months back. The monument was due for restoration work. The Indian Express quoted an official of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) as if helplessly saying, “Now it’s become a temple and we’ve lost the monument.”
This bid to erase the originality of the monument in the name of religion is in violation of the norms. When The Indian Express contacted local BJP councillor, Radhika Abrol Phogat, she denied having any hand in what can at least be called a land grab. “It was done with the connivance of the previous BJP councillor. I objected too, but it’s a sensitive issue. With whatever that is going on in the country, one can’t touch a temple,” she said.
The Gurugram controversy and the tomb conversion are symptoms of a deeper malaise and can be seen in the context of the USCIRF report on religious freedom. As the report points out “Hindu-nationalist groups are seeking to saffronise India through violence, intimidation, and harassment of non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits”.
"Conditions for religious minorities have deteriorated over the last decade due to a multifaceted campaign by Hindu-nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus," the USCIRF said.
The bipolarizing tendencies of right-wing have become more pronounced in recent years. The notion of “the other” has been reinforced like never before. This ‘Othering’ involves labeling and degrading of religious groups outside of one’s own. Sample this: in an interview with India Today, Anant Hegde of BJP asserted: "All the 200 million Muslims in India are not terrorists, but it is a fact that all terrorists belong to that community." The names given to “that community” can be used to justify extreme actions including violence. I am reminded of Haig Bosmajian’s term “the language of oppression”. In his book on Intercultural Communication, Fred Edmund Jandt recalls how Nazis labeled Jews ‘parasites’, ‘disease’, ‘demon’ and ‘plague’. Why do the words used to refer to “them” or “that community” matter? As Jandt points out, “It’s because although killing another human being may be unthinkable, exterminating a disease is not.”